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Qatar launches hacking probe as fake news row spreads across Gulf

UAE and Saudi ban Qatari media after Qatar emir quoted in fake story defending Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran
Quotes attributed to Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, in a story that QNA said was false, criticised Qatar's Gulf neighbours (AFP)

Qatar said it has launched an inquiry into an unprecedented security breach, alleging "shameful" hackers posted a fake story quoting Qatar's leader that sparked tension with Gulf neighbours. 

Publication of the fake story, which hit Qatar's official news agency website and Twitter account just after midnight on Wednesday, led to ripples of reaction across the Gulf.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE both blocked Qatari-based news outlets, including Al Jazeera, from broadcasting in their territory in the wake of the stories' appearance. 

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The Qatari state television's nightly newscast on Tuesday showed clips of the emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, at an official military ceremony with a scrolling ticker at the bottom of the screen showing the alleged remarks. 

They included calling Hamas "the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people," as well as saying Qatar had "strong relations" with Iran and Israel.

"Iran represents a regional and Islamic power that cannot be ignored and it is unwise to face up against it," the ticker read at one point. "It is a big power in the stabilisation of the region."

Also mentioned were alleged "tensions" between Qatar and the administration of the US president, Donald Trump.

In addition, the Qatar News Agency's hacked Twitter account carried a false story in Arabic apparently from the country's foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, about Qatar withdrawing its ambassadors from several nearby countries.

One aim of the attack appears to be to harm Doha's fragile relations with neighbouring Gulf states, which have been strained in recent years over issues such as Qatar's support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Qatar's foreign ministry said on Wednesday: "QNA's website was hacked at 12:14am on Wednesday, with hackers publishing false statements attributed to HH the Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani," said the foreign ministry.

"It is clear this shameful cybercrime was instigated and perpetrated with malicious intent."

The hacked report said Sheikh Tamim, in a speech to a military graduation ceremony, was critical of renewed tensions with Tehran, expressed understanding for Hezbollah and Hamas, and suggested Trump might not last long in power.

A government spokesman told Reuters the emir had attended a graduation ceremony for Qataris doing national service, "however, he did not make any speech or give any statements".

The Qatar News Agency is expected to hold a press conference later on Wednesday in response to the alleged hack.

Screengrab of a deleted tweet from QNA's account

TRANSLATION: The foreign minister confirms a conspiracy by Saudi, Egypt, UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait to smear the reputation of Qatar (screengrab)

The "false statement" on QNA, which appeared in the early hours of the morning, was picked up and reported by broadcasters and newspapers across the region, including in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi's Al Arabiya and UAE-based Sky News Arabia had run hours of coverage discussing the Qatari statements that praised Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. 

One Saudi media outlet slammed the alleged statement describing Shia-dominated Iran as a "stability guarantor" in the region.

An analyst on the Saudi state news channel, Al Ekhbariya, called Tamim's alleged remarks as "political adolescence".

Al Arabiya claimed that the story could not be a hack since it was done across multiple channels, including Instagram, Facebook and Google Plus, that would have been difficult to hack simultaneously.

After the hacking was announced, QNA’s website went offline.

But the news agency’s Twitter account continued to send controversial messages that were later deleted, including a tweet claiming that Qatar’s foreign minister had said there was a conspiracy by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Bahrain and Kuwait to smear his country’s reputation.

The alleged hack risked reviving a 2014 rift between Qatar and other Gulf states over Doha's backing for the Muslim Brotherhood and suggest behind-the-scenes disarray among US Gulf allies just days after a visit by President Trump to the region.

Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have used their oil and gas revenues to intervene in the politics and conflicts of other regional states, and any rifts could alter the political environment in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

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